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Does the Pitt Review go far enough ?


Major flood events and water rescues have the potential to affect every UK citizen and may involve rescues of very large numbers of people

photos: Hereford and Worcestershire Fire and Rescue Service

A CATALOGUE OF SHORTCOMINGS in public and private preparedness for major flood events have been highlighted in an independent review of last summer’s UK floods according to The Pitt Review, published in December 2007 by Sir Michael Pitt, Chairman of the South West Strategic Health Authority.

Few of the issues raised are new, and many of the recommendations repeat those made after previous events and exercises. This in itself should not be surprising; the issues have been known and with us for many years. However, some key features of last year’s floods – the massive scale of the heroic rescue response, the decisive leadership required, and how it was achieved – have been largely overlooked.

Major flood events and water rescues differ in that they have the potential to affect every UK citizen and may involve rescues of very large numbers of people. What happened in the UK last summer showed us this: more than 9,000 rescues – the largest peace-time rescue operation to date.

While the report’s omissions are apparently easy to explain, perhaps the most significant issues arising from the emergency response phase to the floods have not been comprehended within the Review Team’s report. Rescue operations, largely managed by Fire and Rescue Services (FRSs), are currently the subject of a separate review being conducted by the UK’s Department of Communities and Local Government (CLG), and in turn, are intended to inform Pitt’s review. Clearly then, in the circumstances, any lack of understanding within Pitt’s review is explicable. However, unless challenged, his recommendations might unwittingly lead to disaster. For example, to quote Recommendation 4: “The Review recommends that all Local Resilience Forums (LRFs) urgently review their current local arrangements for water rescue to consider whether they are adequate in light of the summer’s events and their local community risk registers.”


This is an inadequate suggestion, obviously based upon a misunderstanding of the current statutory situation across England and Wales. In fact, no one currently has a statutory duty to carry out water rescues, and while LRF partners have a duty under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to consider whether current arrangements are adequate, they have no duty whatsoever to address these inadequacies. A further complication is that in order to carry out Pitt’s recommendation, those carrying out the work would need to understand the operational challenges and risks arising from inland water emergencies. Being without national standards or guidance, very few have been trained and even less have the necessary strategic knowledge and skills.

The only way in which public safety can be guaranteed during these increasingly frequent major events is for a single agency to be given primacy for managing water rescue operations. Last summer, the FRS stepped in to fill this void, but was only given permission by the Government to act and establish the crucial Chief Fire Officers’ Association (CFOA) Flood Support Team after the initial floods had already affected Humberside and Sheffield. The management and co-ordination role undertaken by the FRS undoubtedly saved many lives, but it remains today an ad-hoc arrangement delivered on a voluntary basis.

There are no laid down standard operating procedures (SOPs) for this vital operation. Issues relating to capability needs and FRS response options were dealt with in the recommendations made by the CFOA in a report by the CFOA’s Inland Water Strategic Group (IWSG), titled Management of Major Flood Events FRS Contribution to the Emergency Phase Report for CFOA Board. These issues, along with the National Flood Advice Support Team (NFAST) operations reports, were presented during a Parliamentary seminar, and at the Flood Fighters 2007 conference last October. The issues raised included major floods and cold water (which is all UK waters at all times of the year) posing a significant risk to responders and the public. More people drown than die in fires. Also LRFs and communities need certainty that the specialised assets they require are available at a minute’s notice. This capability, the rightful province of the FRS, will not be provided without statutory provision. Witness the problems of the budgetary issues arising from the recent Comprehensive Spending Review 2007, where fire and rescue authorities are deciding how to make savings for 2008/2009.

We must not place the FRS in the position of choosing which lifesaving service to provide or not; it is responders or their communities who will pay the price with their lives. Factually, without knowledge or training, you cannot prepare for a flood if you don’t understand the inevitable operational and tactical threats. These hazards and risks involved in emergency response are not yet widely known or fully appreciated within FRS or LRF planning structures, including the fact that flood water is, crucially, moving cold water and immensely threatening. First and second responders don’t know it can kill.

These skills are better acquired through clear legislative responsibilities, not voluntarily. The Police’s role, and its strongest forte, in co-ordinating the emergency phase of flood emergency worked well in most instances during the 2007 floods. However, lack of clarity about who was responsible for carrying out and co-ordinating specialist water rescue placed both the public and responders at unnecessary risk until the CLG and CFOA stepped in. Again, there was a need for clear SOPs for response capacity and capabilities of the equipment and human resources involved. This urgently needs formalising. Without legislative requirements to make a core responsibility, why should FRSs acquire and maintain at effort and costs these trained skills?

Voluntary sector responders such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) provided an invaluable specialist contribution in the 2007 floods. However, they have specific mission mandates, mainly being charities. They also have limited budgets and none of them can provide the command and co-ordination required for a major inland event. We therefore cannot rely on charitable response for water rescue first response or surge capacity on the scale we were faced with last year.

Climate change is a factor clearly acknowledged in Pitt’s report, as indeed were very many other important issues, which should be supported. All current local and national risk assessments recognise that major flooding has the potential to cause mass fatalities across our land. One national flood impact assessment is for the rescue of up to 45,000 people in the event of another 1953 North Sea-type disaster.

In 1953 the greatest surge on record for the North Sea occurred; its amplitude reached 2.74m at Southend, 2.97m at King’s Lynn and 3.36m in the Netherlands. In England, almost 100,000 hectares were flooded and 307 people died. In the Netherlands, the sea burst 50 dykes and 1,800 people drowned.




Last year’s flooding involved the rescue of 9,000 people. This, along with other issues, was largely overlooked by Pitt’s report

Last November, we almost saw a repeat of this disaster – it was very close and it will happen again. As it stands, and all flood and water related events are predictable risks, the public rightly expects the FRS to mount a professional rescue response. Successful resolution of any major flood event will need the seamless co-ordination of FRS and all other specialist water rescue assets at a local and national level. The CFOA developed ‘team typing’ system has already proved itself in this regard, and has been accepted in principle by all other major voluntary rescue service providers. Team typing enables them to work together at a single incident, common systems of work with a common understanding of command, control and risk issues which are essential to ensure public and first responder safety. Principles of this, which were absolutely vital to success in last year’s 9,000 rescues, and which were missed by the report, could also help facilitate the need for mutual support between local authorities. Given the potential for incidents to span regional boundaries, and the four realities of flooding – they are multi-agency, multi-jurisdictional, HazMat and public health, and long-term events – there is an imperative need for consistency in management of flood response and water rescues. Therefore, nationally we need to have a FRS statutory duty to enable the following outcomes to be achieved:

Save lives and protect property and critical national infrastructure;

  • Ensure responder safety;
  • Ensure a cohesive flooding and water rescue response can be made at local and national levels;
  • Maximise the use and effectiveness of diverse specialist resources from the FRS, military and voluntary sectors, with a holistic, joined-up approach;
  • Enhance public confidence in governmental and emergency services by closing an obvious gap in service provision and civil resilience;
  • Ensure the most effective cross boundary use of specialist resources;
  • Provide a management framework within which diverse capabilities can be marshalled and utilised to the best effect;
  • Provide the leadership and direction other agencies need to enable them to contribute effectively; and
  • Provide clarity for multi-agency partners and the public about FRS roles and responsibility during flood events.

Also, while not strictly not concerning the report, let us deal with another concept propounded in some quarters – that it would be satisfactory to deal with only major flood events by legislation and not ordinary water rescue events (see the Scottish legislation for a foretaste). So, it seems, what’s really being said is that it’s fine to drown when you’re not in a flood.

In conclusion, there is still a great deal to be done to address the emergency response/rescue aspects of major flood events in the UK. The information and training is available to solve the problems, but this cannot take place without a clear statutory duty being given to the UK FRS to respond to inland water rescue and flood events. 


David Lane, formerly a Senior Fire Officer, is the Managing Director of Lane, Jefferies & Associates, a specialist fire, water and marine safety consultancy. He is also a film producer and organises the Flood Fighters series of conferences with CRJ.

Please see article in original pdf format below.


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